The Girl on the Train 12
Publication Date: 02/01/2015
- Contemporary fiction
- Publication Date:
- Transworld Publishers Limited
- Country of origin:
- United Kingdom
- Dimensions (mm):
She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.
One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl. Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies, they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Now look what you made me do.
Friday, 5 July 2013 Morning THERE IS A PILE OF clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth – a shirt, perhaps – jumbled up with something dirty white.
It’s probably rubbish, part of a load fly-tipped into the scrubby
little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe, and the feet that fitted into them.
The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion, the little pile of clothes disappears from view and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace. Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation; the 8.04 slow train from Ashbury to Euston can test the patience of the most seasoned commuter. The journey is supposed to take fifty-four minutes, but it rarely does: this section of the track is ancient, decrepit, beset with signalling problems and never-ending engineering works.
The train crawls along; it judders past warehouses and water towers, bridges and sheds, past modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the track. My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home. Someone’s phone is ringing, an incongruously joyful and upbeat song. They’re slow to answer, it jingles on and on around me. I can feel my fellow commuters shift in their seats, rustle their newspapers, tap at their computers. The train lurches and sways around the bend, slowing as it approaches a red signal. I try not to look up, I try to read the free newspaper I was handed on my way into the station, but the words blur in front of my eyes, nothing holds my interest. In my head I can still see that little pile of< clothes lying at the edge of the track, abandoned.
The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip. Tangy and cold, the taste of my first ever holiday with Tom, a fishing village on the Basque coast in 2005. In the mornings we’d swim the half-mile to the little island in the bay, make love on secret hidden beaches; in the afternoons we’d sit at a bar drinking strong, bitter gin and tonics, watching swarms of beach footballers playing chaotic 25-a-side games on the low-tide sands. I take another sip, and another; the can’s already half empty but it’s OK, I have three more in the plastic bag at my feet. It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train. TGIF. The fun starts here.
It’s going to be a lovely weekend, that’s what they’re telling us.
Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies. In the old days we might have driven to Corly Wood with a picnic and the papers, spent all afternoon lying on a blanket in dappled sunlight, drinking wine. We might have barbecued out back with friends, or gone to The Rose and sat in the beer garden, faces flushing with sun and alcohol as the afternoon went on, weaving home, arm in arm, falling asleep on the sofa.
Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, no one to play with, nothing to do. Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.
The weekend stretches out ahead of me, forty-eight empty hours to fill. I lift the can to my mouth again, but there’s not a drop left.
Monday, 8 July 2013
It’s a relief to be back on the 8.04. It’s not that I can’t wait to get into London to start my week – I don’t particularly want to be in London at all. I just want to lean back in the soft, sagging velour seat, feel the warmth of the sunshine streaming through the window, feel the carriage rock back and forth and back and forth, the comforting rhythm of wheels on tracks. I’d rather be here, looking
out at the houses beside the track, than almost anywhere else.
There’s a faulty signal on this line, about halfway through my
journey. I assume it must be faulty, in any case, because it’s almost
always red; we stop there most days, sometimes just for a few seconds, sometimes for minutes on end. If I sit in carriage D, which I usually do, and the train stops at this signal, which it almost always does, I have a perfect view into my favourite trackside house: number fifteen.
Number fifteen is much like the other houses along this stretch of track: a Victorian semi, two storeys high, overlooking a narrow, well-tended garden which runs around twenty feet down towards some fencing, beyond which lie a few metres of no man’s land before you get to the railway track. I know this house by heart. I know every brick, I know the colour of the curtains in the upstairs bedroom (beige, with a dark-blue print), I know that the paint is peeling off the bathroom window frame and that there are four tiles missing from a section of the roof over on the right-hand side. I know that on warm summer evenings, the occupants of this house, Jason and Jess, sometimes climb out of the large sash window to sit on the makeshift terrace on top of the kitchenextension roof. They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blonde hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.
While we’re stuck at the red signal, I look for them. Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee. Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me too, I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave. I’m too self-conscious. I don’t see Jason quite so much, he’s< away a lot with work. But even if they’re not there, I think about what they might be up to. Maybe this morning they’ve both got the day off and she’s lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or maybe they’ve gone for a run together, because that’s the sort of thing they do. (Tom and I used to run together on Sundays, me going at slightly above my normal pace, him at about half his, just so we could run side by side.) Maybe Jess is upstairs in the spare room, painting, or maybe they’re in the shower together, her hands pressed against the tiles, his hands on her hips.
Turning slightly towards the window, my back to the rest of the carriage, I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc Ipurchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do. I pour some into a plastic cup, screw the top back on and slip the bottle into my handbag. It’s less acceptable to drink on the train on a Monday, unless you’re drinking with company, which I am not.
There are familiar faces on these trains, people I see every week, going to and fro. I recognize them and they probably recognize me. I don’t know whether they see me, though, for what I really am.
It’s a glorious evening, warm but not too close, the sun starting its lazy descent, shadows lengthening and the light just beginning to burnish the trees with gold. The train is rattling along, we whip past Jason and Jess’s place, they pass in a blur of evening sunshine.
Sometimes, not often, I can see them from this side of the track. If there’s no train going in the opposite direction, and if we’re travelling slowly enough, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of them out on their terrace. If not – like today – I can imagine them. Jess will be sitting with her feet up on the table out on the terrace, a glass of wine in her hand, Jason standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders. I can imagine the feel of his hands, the weight of them, reassuring and protective. Sometimes I catch myself trying to remember the last time I had meaningful physical contact with another person, just a hug or a heartfelt squeeze of my hand, and my heart twitches.
Tuesday, 9 July 2013
The pile of clothes from last week is still there, and it looks dustier and more forlorn than it did a few days ago. I read somewhere that a train can rip the clothes right off you when it hits. It’s not that unusual, death by train. Two to three hundred a year, they say, so at least one every couple of days. I’m not sure how many of RACHEL those are accidental. I look carefully, as the train rolls slowly past, for blood on the clothes, but I can’t see any.
The train stops at the signal as usual. I can see Jess standing on the patio in front of the French doors. She’s wearing a bright print dress, her feet are bare. She’s looking over her shoulder, back into the house; she’s probably talking to Jason, who’ll be making breakfast. I keep my eyes fixed on Jess, on her home, as the train starts to inch forward. I don’t want to see the other houses; I particularly don’t want to see the one four doors down, the one which used to be mine.
I lived at number twenty-three Blenheim Road for five years, blissfully happy and utterly wretched. I can’t look at it now. That was my first home. Not my parents’ place, not a flatshare with other students, my first home. I can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look. I can’t help myself, even though there is nothing I want to see there, even though anything I do see will hurt me. Even though I remember so clearly how it felt that time I looked up and noticed that the cream linen blind in the upstairs bedroom was gone, replaced by something in soft baby pink; even though I still remember the pain I felt when I saw Anna watering the rose bushes near the fence, her T-shirt stretched tight over her bulging belly, and I bit my lip so hard it bled.
I close my eyes tightly and count to ten, fifteen, twenty. There, it’s gone now, nothing to see. We roll into Witney station and out again, the train starting to pick up pace as suburbia melts into grimy north London, terraced houses replaced by tagged bridges and empty buildings with broken windows. The closer we get to Euston the more anxious I feel; pressure builds, how will today be? There’s a filthy, low-slung concrete building on the right-hand side of the track about five hundred metres before we get into Euston. On its side, someone has painted: LIFE IS NOT A PARAGRAPH. I think about the bundle of clothes on the side of the track and I feel as though my throat is closing up. Life is not a paragraph and death is no parenthesis.
The train I take in the evening, the 17.56, is slightly slower than
the morning one – it takes one hour and one minute, a full seven minutes longer than the morning train despite not stopping at any extra stations. I don’t mind, because just as I’m in no great hurry to get into London in the morning, I’m in no hurry to get back to Ashbury in the evening either. Not just because it’s Ashbury, although the place itself is bad enough, a 1960s new town, spreading like a tumour over the heart of Buckinghamshire. No better or worse than a dozen other towns like it, a centre filled with cafés and mobile-phone shops and branches of JD Sports, surrounded by a band of suburbia and beyond that the realm of the multiplex cinema and out-of-town Tesco. I live in a smart(ish), new(ish) block situated at the point where the commercial heart of the place starts to bleed into the residential outskirts, but it is not my home. My home is the Victorian semi on the tracks, the one I partowned.
In Ashbury I am not a homeowner, not even a tenant – I’m a lodger, occupant of the small second bedroom in Cathy’s bland and inoffensive duplex, subject to her grace and favour.
Cathy and I were friends at university. Half-friends, really, we were never that close. She lived across the hall from me in my first< year and we were doing the same course, so we were natural allies in those first few daunting weeks, before we met people with whom we had more in common. We didn’t see much of each other after the first year and barely at all after college, except for the occasional wedding. But in my hour of need she happened to have a spare room going and it made sense. I was so sure that it would only be for a couple of months, six at the most, and< I didn’t know what else to do. I’d never lived by myself, I’d gone from parents to flatmates to Tom, I found the idea overwhelming, so I said yes. And that was nearly two years ago.
It’s not awful. Cathy’s a nice person, in a forceful sort of way. She makes you notice her niceness. Her niceness is writ large, it is her defining quality and she needs it acknowledged, often, daily almost, which can be tiring. But it’s not so bad, I can think of worse traits in a flatmate. No, it’s not Cathy, it’s not even Ashbury that bothers me most about my new situation (I still think of it as new, although it’s been two years). It’s the loss of control. In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very outer limit of their welcome. I feel it in the kitchen, where we jostle for space when cooking our evening meals. I feel it when I sit beside her on the sofa, the remote control firmly within her grasp. The only space which feels like mine is my tiny bedroom, into which a double bed and a desk have been crammed, with barely enough space to walk between them. It’s comfortable enough, but it isn’t a place you want to be, so instead I linger in the living room or at the kitchen table, ill at ease and powerless. I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.
Wednesday, 10 July 2013
The heat is building. It’s barely half past eight and already the day is
close, the air heavy with moisture. I could wish for a storm, but the
sky is an insolent blank, pale, watery blue. I wipe away the sweat on
my top lip. I wish I’d remembered to buy a bottle of water.
I can’t see Jason and Jess this morning, and my sense of dis -
appointment is acute. Silly, I know. I scrutinize the house, but
there’s nothing to see. The curtains are open downstairs but the
French doors are closed, sunlight reflecting off the glass. The sash
window upstairs is closed, too. Jason may be away working. He’s
a doctor, I think, probably for one of those overseas organizations.
He’s constantly on call, a bag packed on top of the wardrobe;
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
there’s an earthquake in Iran or a tsunami in Asia and he drops
everything, he grabs his bag and he’s at Heathrow within a matter
of hours, ready to fly out and save lives.
Jess, with her bold prints and her Converse trainers and her
beauty, her attitude, works in the fashion industry. Or perhaps in
the music business, or in advertising – she might be a stylist or a
photographer. She’s a good painter, too, plenty of artistic flair. I
can see her now, in the spare room upstairs, music blaring,
window open, a brush in her hand, an enormous canvas leaning
against the wall. She’ll be there until midnight; Jason knows not
to bother her when she’s working.
I can’t really see her, of course. I don’t know if she paints, or
whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful
cheekbones. I can’t see her bone structure from here and I’ve never
heard Jason’s voice. I’ve never seen them up close, they didn’t live
at that house when I lived down the road. They moved in after I
left two years ago, I don’t know when exactly. I suppose I started
noticing them about a year ago, and gradually, as the months went
past, they became important to me.
I don’t know their names either, so I had to name them myself.
Jason, because he’s handsome in a British film star kind of way,
not a Depp or a Pitt, but a Firth, or a Jason Isaacs. And Jess just
goes with Jason, and it goes with her. It fits her, pretty and carefree
as she is. They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell.
They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago.
They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.
My shirt, uncomfortably tight, buttons straining across my chest,
is pit stained, damp patches clammy beneath my arms. My eyes
and throat itch. This evening I don’t want the journey to stretch
out; I long to get home, to undress and get into the shower, to be
where no one can look at me.
I look at the man in the seat opposite mine. He is about my age,
early to mid-thirties, with dark hair, greying at the temples. Sallow
skin. He’s wearing a suit, but he’s taken the jacket off and slung it
on the seat next to him. He has a MacBook, paper thin, open in
front of him. He’s a slow typist. He’s wearing a silver watch with a
large face on his right wrist – it looks expensive, a Breitling maybe.
He’s chewing the inside of his cheek. Perhaps he’s nervous. Or just
thinking deeply. Writing an important email to a colleague at the
office in New York, or a carefully worded break-up message to his
girlfriend. He looks up suddenly and meets my eye; his glance
travels over me, over the little bottle of wine on the table in front
of me. He looks away. There’s something about the set of his
mouth which suggests distaste. He finds me distasteful.
I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m offputting
in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that
my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if
people can see the damage written all over me, they can see it in
my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.
One night last week, when I left my room to get myself a glass
of water, I overheard Cathy talking to Damien, her boyfriend, in
the living room. I stood in the hallway and listened. ‘She’s lonely,’
Cathy was saying, ‘I really worry about her. It doesn’t help, her
being alone all the time.’ Then she said, ‘Isn’t there someone from
work, maybe, or the rugby club?’ and Damien said, ‘For Rachel?
Not being funny, Cath, but I’m not sure I know anyone that
Thursday, 11 July 2013
I’m picking at the plaster on my forefinger. It’s damp, it got wet
when I was washing out my coffee mug this morning; it feels
clammy, dirty, though it was clean on this morning. I don’t want
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
to take it off because the cut is deep. Cathy was out when I got
home, so I went to the off-licence and bought two bottles of wine.
I drank the first one and then I thought I’d take advantage of the
fact that she was out and cook myself a steak, make a red-onion
relish, have it with a green salad. A good, healthy meal. I sliced
through the top of my finger while chopping the onions. I must
have gone to the bathroom to clean it up and gone to lie down for
a while and just forgotten all about the kitchen, because I woke up
around ten and I could hear Cathy and Damien talking and he
was saying how disgusting it was that I would leave the place like
that. Cathy came upstairs to see me, she knocked softly on my
door and opened it a fraction. She cocked her head to one side
and asked if I was OK. I apologized without being sure what I was
apologizing for. She said it was all right, but would I mind cleaning
up a bit? There was blood on the chopping board, the room
smelled of raw meat, the steak was still sitting out on the counter
top, turning grey. Damien didn’t even say hello, he just shook his
head when he saw me and went upstairs to Cathy’s bedroom.
After they’d both gone to bed I remembered that I hadn’t drunk
the second bottle, so I opened that. I sat on the sofa and watched
television with the sound turned down really low so they
wouldn’t hear it. I can’t remember what I was watching, but at
some point I must have felt lonely, or happy, or something,
because I wanted to talk to someone. The need for contact must
have been overwhelming and there was no one I could call except
There’s no one I want to talk to except for Tom. The call log on
my phone says I rang four times: at 11.02, 11.12, 11.54, 12.09.
Judging from the length of the calls, I left two messages. He may
even have picked up, but I don’t remember talking to him. I
remember leaving the first message; I think I just asked him to call
me. That may be what I said in both of them, which isn’t too bad.
The train shudders to a standstill at the red signal and I look up.
Jess is sitting on her patio, drinking a cup of coffee. She has her
feet up against the table and her head back, sunning herself.
Behind her, I think I can see a shadow, someone moving: Jason. I
long to see him, to catch a glimpse of his handsome face. I want
him to come outside, to stand behind her, the way he does, to kiss
the top of her head.
He doesn’t come out, and her head falls forward. There is something
about the way she is moving today that seems different; she
is heavier, weighed down. I will him to come out to her, but the
train jolts and slogs forward and still there is no sign of him; she’s
alone. And now, without thinking, I find myself looking directly
into my house, and I can’t look away. The French doors are flung
open, light streaming into the kitchen. I can’t tell, I really can’t,
whether I’m seeing this or imagining it – is she there, at the sink,
washing up? Is there a little girl sitting in one of those bouncy
baby chairs, up there on the kitchen table?
I close my eyes and let the darkness grow and spread until it
morphs from a feeling of sadness into something worse: a memory,
a flashback. I didn’t just ask him to call me back. I remember
now, I was crying. I told him that I still loved him, that I always
would. Please, Tom, please, I need to talk to you. I miss you. No no no
no no no no.
I have to accept it, there’s no point trying to push it away. I’m
going to feel terrible all day, it’s going to come in waves – stronger
then weaker then stronger again – that twist in the pit of my stomach,
the anguish of shame, the heat coming to my face, my eyes
squeezed tight as though I could make it all disappear. And I’ll be
telling myself all day, it’s not the worst thing, is it? It’s not the
worst thing I’ve ever done, it’s not as if I fell over in public, or
yelled at a stranger in the street. It’s not as if I humiliated my
husband at a summer barbecue by shouting abuse at the wife of
one of his friends. It’s not as if we got into a fight one night at
home and I went for him with a golf club, taking a chunk out of
the plaster in the hallway outside the bedroom. It’s not like going
back to work after a three-hour lunch and staggering through the
office, everyone looking, Martin Miles taking me to one side, I
think you should probably go home, Rachel. I once read a book by a
former alcoholic where she described giving oral sex to two
different men, men she’d just met in a restaurant on a busy
London high street. I read it and I thought, I’m not that bad. This
is where the bar is set.
I have been thinking about Jess all day, unable to focus on anything
but what I saw this morning. What was it that made me
think that something was wrong? I couldn’t possibly see her
expression at that distance, but I felt when I was looking at her
that she was alone. More than alone – lonely. Perhaps she was –
perhaps he’s away, gone to one of those hot countries he jets off
to to save lives. And she misses him, and she worries, although she
knows he has to go.
Of course she misses him, just as I do. He is kind and strong,
everything a husband should be. And they are a partnership. I can
see it, I know how they are. His strength, that protectiveness he
radiates, it doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’s strong in other ways;
she makes intellectual leaps that leave him open-mouthed in
admiration. She can cut to the nub of a problem, dissect and
analyse it in the time it takes other people to say good morning.
At parties, he often holds her hand, even though they’ve been
together years. They respect each other, they don’t put each other
I feel exhausted this evening. I am sober, stone cold. Some days
I feel so bad that I have to drink; some days I feel so bad that I
can’t. Today, the thought of alcohol turns my stomach. But
sobriety on the evening train is a challenge, particularly now, in
this heat. A film of sweat covers every inch of my skin, the inside
of my mouth prickles, my eyes itch, mascara rubbed into their
My phone buzzes in my handbag, making me jump. Two girls
sitting across the carriage look at me and then at each other, with
a sly exchange of smiles. I don’t know what they think of me, but
I know it isn’t good. My heart is pounding in my chest as I reach
for the phone. I know this will be nothing good either: it will be
Cathy, perhaps, asking me ever so nicely to maybe give the booze
a rest this evening? Or my mother, telling me that she’ll be in
London next week, she’ll drop by the office, we can go for lunch.
I look at the screen. It’s Tom. I hesitate for just a second and then
I answer it.
For the first five years I knew him, I was never Rachel, always
Rach. Sometimes Shelley, because he knew I hated it and it made
him laugh to watch me twitch with irritation and then giggle
because I couldn’t help but join in when he was laughing. ‘Rachel,
it’s me.’ His voice is leaden, he sounds worn out. ‘Listen, you have
to stop this, OK?’ I don’t say anything. The train is slowing and we
are almost opposite the house, my old house. I want to say to him,
Come outside, go and stand on the lawn. Let me see you. ‘Please,
Rachel, you can’t call me like this all the time. You’ve got to sort
yourself out.’ There is a lump in my throat as hard as a pebble,
smooth and obstinate. I cannot swallow. I cannot speak. ‘Rachel?
Are you there? I know things aren’t good with you, and I’m sorry
for you, I really am, but . . . I can’t help you, and these constant
calls are really upsetting Anna. OK? I can’t help you any more. Go
to AA or something. Please, Rachel. Go to an AA meeting after
I pull the filthy plaster off the end of my finger and look at the
pale, wrinkled flesh beneath, dried blood caked at the edge of my
fingernail. I press the thumbnail of my right hand into the centre
of the cut and feel it open up, the pain sharp and hot. I catch my
breath. Blood starts to ooze from the wound. The girls on the
other side of the carriage are watching me, their faces blank.
One year earlier
Wednesday, 16 May 2012
I CAN HEAR THE TRAIN coming; I know its rhythm by heart. It picks
up speed as it accelerates out of Northcote station and then, after
rattling round the bend, it starts to slow down, from a rattle to a
rumble, and then sometimes a screech of brakes as it stops at the
signal a couple of hundred yards from the house. My coffee is cold
on the table, but I’m too deliciously warm and lazy to bother
getting up to make myself another cup.
Sometimes I don’t even watch the trains go past, I just listen.
Sitting here in the morning, eyes closed and the hot sun orange on
my eyelids, I could be anywhere. I could be in the south of Spain,
at the beach; I could be in Italy, the Cinque Terre, all those pretty
coloured houses and the trains ferrying the tourists back and
forth. I could be back in Holkham with the screech of gulls in my
ears and salt on my tongue and a ghost train passing on the rusted
track half a mile away.
The train isn’t stopping today, it trundles slowly past. I can hear
the wheels clacking over the points, I can almost feel it rocking. I
can’t see the faces of the passengers and I know they’re just
commuters heading to Euston to sit behind desks, but I can
dream: of more exotic journeys, of adventures at the end of the
line and beyond. In my head, I keep travelling back to Holkham;
it’s odd that I still think of it, on mornings like this, with such
affection, such longing, but I do. The wind in the grass, the big
slate sky over the dunes, the house infested with mice and falling
down, full of candles and dirt and music. It’s like a dream to me
I feel my heart beating just a little too fast.
I can hear his footfall on the stairs, he calls my name.
‘You want another coffee, Megs?’
The spell is broken, I’m awake.
I’m cool from the breeze and warm from the two fingers of vodka
in my Martini. I’m out on the terrace, waiting for Scott to come
home. I’m going to persuade him to take me out to dinner at the
Italian on Kingly Road. We haven’t been out for bloody ages.
I haven’t got much done today. I was supposed to sort out my
application for the fabrics course at St Martins; I did start it, I was
working downstairs in the kitchen when I heard a woman screaming,
making a horrible noise, I thought someone was being
murdered. I ran outside into the garden, but I couldn’t see anything.
I could still hear her though, it was nasty, it went right through
me, her voice really shrill and desperate. ‘What are you doing?
What are you doing with her? Give her to me, give her to me.’ It
seemed to go on and on, though it probably only lasted a few
I ran upstairs and climbed out on to the terrace and I could see,
through the trees, two women down by the fence, a few gardens
over. One of them was crying – maybe they both were – and there
was a child bawling its head off too.
I thought about calling the police, but it all seemed to calm
down then. The woman who’d been screaming ran into the house,
carrying the baby. The other one stayed out there. She ran up
towards the house, she stumbled and got to her feet and then just
sort of wandered round the garden in circles. Really weird. God
knows what was going on. But it’s the most excitement I’ve had in
My days feel empty now I don’t have the gallery to go to any
longer. I really miss it. I miss talking to the artists. I even miss dealing
with all those tedious yummy mummies who used to drop by,
Starbucks in hand, to gawk at the pictures, telling their friends that
little Jessie did better pictures than that at nursery school.
Sometimes I feel like seeing if I can track down anybody from
the old days, but then I think, what would I talk to them about
now? They wouldn’t even recognize Megan the happily married
suburbanite. In any case, I can’t risk looking backwards, it’s always
a bad idea. I’ll wait until the summer is over, then I’ll look for
work. It seems like a shame to waste these long summer days. I’ll
find something, here or elsewhere, I know I will.
I find myself standing in front of my wardrobe, staring for the
hundredth time at a rack of pretty clothes, the perfect wardrobe for
the manager of a small but cutting-edge art gallery. Nothing in it
says ‘nanny’. God, even the word makes me want to gag. I put on
jeans and a T-shirt, scrape my hair back. I don’t even bother
putting on any make-up. There’s no point, is there, prettying
myself up to spend all day with a baby?
I flounce downstairs, half spoiling for a fight. Scott’s making
coffee in the kitchen. He turns to me with a grin and my mood
lifts instantly. I rearrange my pout to a smile. He hands me a
coffee and kisses me.
There’s no sense blaming him for this, it was my idea. I
volunteered to do it, to become a childminder for the people
down the road. At the time, I thought it might be fun. Completely
insane, really, I must have been mad. Bored, mad, curious. I
wanted to see. I think I got the idea after I heard her yelling out in
the garden and I wanted to know what was going on. Not that I’ve
asked, of course. You can’t really, can you?
Scott encouraged me – he was over the moon when I suggested
it. He thinks spending time around babies will make me broody.
In fact, it’s doing exactly the opposite; when I leave their house I
run home, can’t wait to strip my clothes off and get into the
shower and wash the baby smell off me.
I long for my days at the gallery, prettied up, hair done, talking
to adults about art or films or nothing at all. Nothing at all would
be a step up from my conversations with Anna. God, she’s dull!
You get the feeling that she probably had something to say for herself
once upon a time, but now everything is about the child: is she
warm enough? Is she too warm? How much milk did she take?
And she’s always there, so most of the time I feel like a spare part.
My job is to watch the child while Anna rests, to give her a break.
A break from what, exactly? She’s weirdly nervous, too. I’m constantly
aware of her, hovering, twitching. She flinches every time a
train passes, jumps when the phone rings. They’re just so fragile,
aren’t they? she says, and I can’t disagree with that.
I leave the house and walk, leaden-legged, the fifty yards along
Blenheim Road to their house. No skip in my step. Today, she
doesn’t open the door, it’s him, the husband. Tom, suited and
booted, off to work. He looks handsome in his suit – not Scott
handsome, he’s smaller and paler, and his eyes are a little too close
together when you see him up close – but he’s not bad. He flashes
me his wide, Tom Cruise smile, and then he’s gone, and it’s just
me and her and the baby.
Thursday, 16 August 2012
I feel so much better, as if anything is possible. I’m free!
I’m sitting on the terrace, waiting for the rain. The sky is black
above me, swallows looping and diving, the air thick with
moisture. Scott will be home in an hour or so and I’ll have to tell
him. He’ll only be pissed off for a minute or two, I’ll make it up
to him. And I won’t just be sitting around the house all day: I’ve
been making plans. I could do a photography course, or set up a
market stall, sell jewellery. I could learn to cook.
I had a teacher at school who told me once that I was a mistress
of self-reinvention. I didn’t know what he was on about at the
time, I thought he was trying it on, but I’ve since come to like the
idea. Runaway, lover, wife, waitress, gallery manager, nanny, and a
few more in between. So who do I want to be tomorrow?
I didn’t really mean to quit, the words just came out. We were
sitting there, around the kitchen table, Anna with the baby on her
lap, and Tom had popped back to pick something up, so he was
there too, drinking a cup of coffee, and it just seemed ridiculous,
there was absolutely no point in me being there. Worse than that,
I felt uncomfortable, as if I was intruding.
‘I’ve found another job,’ I said, without really thinking about it.
‘So I’m not going to be able to do this any longer.’ Anna gave me
a look – I don’t think she believed me. She just said, ‘Oh, that’s a
shame,’ and I could tell she didn’t mean it. She looked relieved.
She didn’t even ask me what the job was, which was a relief,
because I hadn’t thought up a convincing lie.
Tom looked mildly surprised. He said, ‘We’ll miss you,’ but
that’s a lie, too.
The only person who’ll really be disappointed is Scott, so I have
to think of something to tell him. Maybe I’ll tell him Tom was
hitting on me. That’ll put an end to it.
Thursday, 20 September 2012
It’s just after seven, it’s chilly out here now, but it’s so beautiful like
this, all these strips of garden side by side, green and cold and
waiting for fingers of sunshine to creep up from the tracks and
make them all come alive. I’ve been up for hours; I can’t sleep. I
haven’t slept in days. I hate this, hate insomnia more than anything,
just lying there, brain going round, tick, tick, tick, tick. I itch
all over. I want to shave my head.
I want to run. I want to take a road trip, in a convertible, with
the top down. I want to drive to the coast – any coast. I want to
walk on a beach. Me and my big brother were going to be road
trippers. We had such plans, Ben and I. Well, they were Ben’s plans
mostly – he was such a dreamer. We were going to ride motorbikes
from Paris to the Côte d’Azur, or all the way down the Pacific coast
of the USA, from Seattle to Los Angeles; we were going to follow
in Che Guevara’s tracks from Buenos Aires to Caracas. Maybe if I’d
done all that, I wouldn’t have ended up here, not knowing what
to do next. Or maybe, if I’d done all that, I’d have ended up exactly
where I am and I would be perfectly contented. But I didn’t do all
that, of course, because Ben never got as far as Paris, he never even
made it as far as Cambridge. He died on the A10, his skull crushed
beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry.
I miss him every day. More than anyone, I think. He’s the big
hole in my life, in the middle of my soul. Or maybe he was just
the beginning of it. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether all
this is really about Ben, or whether it’s about everything that
happened after that, and everything that’s happened since. All I
know is, one minute I’m ticking along fine and life is sweet and I
want for nothing, and the next, I can’t wait to get away, I’m all over
the place, slipping and sliding again.
So, I’m going to see a therapist! Which could be weird, but it
could be a laugh, too. I’ve always thought that it might be fun to
be Catholic, to be able to go to the confessional and unburden
yourself and have someone tell you that they forgive you, to take
all the sin away, wipe the slate clean.
This is not quite the same thing, of course. I’m a bit nervous,
but I haven’t been able to get to sleep lately, and Scott’s been on
my case to go. I told him, I find it difficult enough talking to
people I know about this stuff – I can barely even talk to you about
it. He said, that’s the point, you can say anything to strangers. But
that isn’t completely true. You can’t just say anything. Poor Scott.
He doesn’t know the half of it. He loves me so much it makes me
ache. I don’t know how he does it. I would drive me mad.
But I have to do something and at least this feels like action. All
those plans I had – photography courses and cookery classes –
when it comes down to it, they feel a bit pointless, as if I’m playing
at real life instead of actually living it. I need to find something
that I must do, something undeniable. I can’t do this, I can’t just
be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it – there is literally
nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and
love you. Either that, or look around for something to distract
I’ve been kept waiting. The appointment was for half an hour ago,
and I’m still here, sitting in the reception room flicking through
Vogue, thinking about getting up and walking out. I know doctors’
appointments run over, but therapists’? Films have always led me
to believe that they kick you out the moment your fifty minutes
are up. I suppose Hollywood isn’t really talking about the kind of
therapist you get referred to on the NHS.
I’m just about to go up to the receptionist and tell her that I’ve
waited long enough, I’m leaving, when the doctor’s office door
swings open and this very tall, lanky man emerges, looking
apologetic and holding out his hand to me.
‘Mrs Hipwell, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting,’ he says,
and I just smile at him and tell him it’s all right, and I feel, in this
moment, that it will be all right, because I’ve only been in his
company for a minute or two and already I feel soothed.
I think it’s the voice. Soft and low. Slightly accented, which I was
expecting, because his name is Dr Kamal Abdic. I guess he must be
mid-thirties, although he looks very young with his incredible
dark honey skin. He has hands I could imagine on me, long and
delicate fingers, I can almost feel them on my body.
We don’t talk about anything substantial, it’s just the intro -
ductory session, the getting-to-know-you stuff; he asks me
what the trouble is and I tell him about the panic attacks, the
insomnia, the fact that I lie awake at night too frightened to fall
asleep. He wants me to talk a bit more about that, but I’m not
ready yet. He asks me whether I take drugs, drink alcohol. I tell
him I have other vices these days, and I catch his eye and I think
he knows what I mean. Then I feel as if I ought to be taking this a
bit more seriously, so I tell him about the gallery closing and that
I feel at a loose end all the time, my lack of direction, the fact that
I spend too much time in my head. He doesn’t talk much, just the
occasional prompt, but I want to hear him speak, so as I’m leaving
I ask him where he’s from.
‘Maidstone,’ he says, ‘in Kent. But I moved to Corly a few years
back.’ He knows that wasn’t what I was asking; he gives me a
Scott is waiting for me when I get home, he thrusts a drink into
my hand, he wants to know all about it. I say it was OK. He asks
me about the therapist: did I like him, did he seem nice? OK, I say
again, because I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic. He asks me
whether we talked about Ben. Scott thinks everything is about
Ben. He may be right. He may know me better than I think he
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
I woke early this morning, but I did sleep for a few hours, which
is an improvement on last week. I felt almost refreshed when I got
out of bed, so instead of sitting on the terrace I decided to go for
I’ve been shutting myself away, almost without realizing it. The
only places I seem to go these days are to the shops, my pilates
classes and the therapist. Occasionally to Tara’s. The rest of the
time, I’m at home. It’s no wonder I get restless.
I walk out of the house, turn right and then left on to Kingly
Road. Past the pub – the Rose. We used to go there all the time; I
can’t remember why we stopped. I never liked it all that much, too
many couples just the right side of forty drinking too much and
casting around for something better, wondering if they’d have the
courage. Perhaps that’s why we stopped going, because I didn’t
like it. Past the pub, past the shops. I don’t want to go far, just a
little circuit, to stretch my legs.
It’s nice being out early, before the school run, before the
commute gets going; the streets are empty and clean, the day full
of possibility. I turn left again, I walk down to the little playground,
the only rather poor excuse for green space we have. It’s
empty now, but in a few hours it will be swarming with toddlers,
mothers and au pairs. Half the pilates girls will be here, head to
toe in Sweaty Betty, competitively stretching, manicured hands
wrapped around their Starbucks.
I carry on past the park and down towards Roseberry Avenue. If
I turned right here I’d go up past my gallery – what was my gallery,
now a vacant shop window – but I don’t want to, because that still
hurts a little. I tried so hard to make a success of it. Wrong place,
wrong time – no call for art in suburbia, not in this economy.
Instead, I turn right, past the Tesco Express, past the other pub, the
one where people from the estate go, and back towards home. I
can feel butterflies now, I’m starting to get nervous. I’m afraid of
bumping into the Watsons, because it’s always awkward when I
see them; it’s patently obvious that I don’t have a new job, that I
lied because I didn’t want to carry on working for them.
Or rather, it’s awkward when I see her. Tom just ignores me. But
Anna seems to take things personally. She obviously thinks that
my short-lived career as a nanny came to an end because of her or
because of her child. It actually wasn’t about her child at all,
although the fact that the child never stops whinging did make her
hard to love. It’s all so much more complicated, but of course I
can’t explain that to her. Anyway. That’s one of the reasons I’ve
been shutting myself away, I suppose, because I don’t want to see
the Watsons. Part of me hopes they’ll just move. I know she
doesn’t like being here: she hates that house, hates living among
his ex-wife’s things, hates the trains.
I stop at the corner and peer into the underpass. That smell of
cold and damp always sends a little shiver down my spine, it’s like
turning over a rock to see what’s underneath: moss and worms
and earth. It reminds me of playing in the garden as a child, looking
for frogs by the pond with Ben. I walk on. The street is clear –
no sign of Tom or Anna – and the part of me that can’t resist a bit
of drama is actually quite disappointed.
Scott’s just called to say he has to work late, which is not the news
I wanted to hear. I’m feeling edgy, have been all day. Can’t keep
still. I need him to come home and calm me down, and now it’s
going to be hours before he gets here and my brain is going to
keep racing round and round and round and I know I’ve got a
sleepless night coming.
I can’t just sit here, watching the trains, I’m too jittery, my heartbeat
feels like a flutter in my chest, like a bird trying to get out of
a cage. I slip my flip-flops on and go downstairs, out of the front
door and on to Blenheim Road. It’s around seven thirty – a few
stragglers on their way home from work. There’s no one else
around, though you can hear the cries of kids playing in their back
gardens, taking advantage of the last of the summer sunshine,
before they get called in for dinner.
I walk down the road, towards the station. I stop for a moment
outside number twenty-three and think about ringing the doorbell.
What would I say? Ran out of sugar? Just fancied a chat? Their
blinds are half open but I can’t see anyone inside.
I carry on, towards the corner, and without really thinking
about it, I continue down into the underpass. I’m about halfway
through when the train runs overhead, and it’s glorious: it’s like an
earthquake, you can feel it right in the centre of your body, stirring
up the blood. I look down and notice that there’s something on
the floor, a hair band, purple, stretched, well used. Dropped by a
runner, probably, but something about it gives me the creeps and
I want to get out of there quickly, back into the sunshine.
On the way back down the road, he passes me in his car, our
eyes meet for just a second and he smiles at me.
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Hard to put down
Not the best book in the world but you won't want to put it down. Will make you question your own drinking and social behaviours.
Voyeuristic and Chilling
TGOTT is told through intersecting timelines of three different women. They do however have some things in common – they are all flawed and all make questionable decisions. Ultimately they are human and we can relate to them.
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This book flowed well and kept me guessing until almost the end. Pay close attention to the dates – trust me!
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